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Virginia Supreme Court Upholds School-Funding Formula

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In a victory for relatively wealthy school districts, the Virginia Supreme Court has upheld the state's school-funding formula, arguing that eliminating fiscal disparities between school systems is "simply not required by the constitution.''

The state's highest court this month ruled against a coalition of poor rural districts, which claimed that significant differences between rich and poor jurisdictions violated the right to an education under the state constitution.

In his opinion for the unanimous court, however, Judge Roscoe B. Stephenson Jr. wrote that while abolishing funding imbalances is "a worthy goal,'' any changes must come from the legislature.

Under the ruling, the state is required to insure "minimum standards of quality'' for its students, but does not have to provide for equal spending.

The decision was greeted with relief by districts in the affluent Washington suburbs of northern Virginia, which would have had to forfeit millions of dollars in state aid.

Suburban Districts Relieved

"If they had redistributed the pie, we would have been one of the divisions that would have lost,'' said Edward L. Kelly, the superintendent of the Prince William County schools.

Under the existing funding formula, the poorest jurisdictions can receive up to 80 cents in state aid for every 20 cents raised at the local level. The richest cities and counties, on the other hand, can obtain 20 cents from the state for every 80 cents they generate locally.

Despite this attempt to equalize funding, the more affluent districts still spend 2 times more per pupil than the poorer districts by raising local revenue.

This difference in spending is manifested in smaller class sizes, more computers, and more course selection for wealthier schools.

Virginia currently ranks 45th in the nation in state aid to K-12 education, according to Robley Jones, the president of the Virginia Education Association. As a result, he said, local communities have been shouldering much of the burden of school costs.

The association is calling on the legislature to adopt a formula that would increase the share of state funds for K-12 education by $900 million.

'Years To Correct'

With the threat of a lawsuit removed, however, rural superintendents are worried that lawmakers will not seriously address the issue.

"If it's not an issue the courts are going to take under their wing, I just hope the Governor and members of the General Assembly will be statesmanlike enough to take leadership on this,'' said Kenneth E. Walker, the superintendent of the Halifax County schools and the chairman of the coalition of poor districts.

The plaintiffs, 11 public school students and seven school boards, filed the complaint in order to force a complete overhaul of the system.

But State Superintendent of Public Instruction William C. Bosher said he believes the current formula is essentially sound.

"The ruling says that districts have a right to be different,'' Mr. Bosher said.

Gov. George F. Allen last week also applauded the court's decision as a "clear statement of support for Virginia's system for funding education.''

The Governor said he would continue to address the issue, however.

The legislature recently passed a $102 million initiative aimed at lowering classroom sizes in kindergarten through 3rd grade in schools with many low-income students.

Governor Allen has said he would sign the measure.

Even so, said Mr. Jones of the state teachers' group, the problem of unequal funding will not go away overnight.

"This problem has taken years to create, and it will take years to correct it,'' he contended. "The state is simply not paying its fair share.''

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